The Complex Ingredients of Livable Cities: Complete Streets to Interior Design, Transit to City Planning, Art to Education

Why do people live somewhere?  Why do they pick a place to raise their children?  Probably the top criteria are job availability, the second is housing affordability, and the third is school quality.  But contributing to each of these, and to some extent standing on its own as controlling criteria, is an elusive thing called quality of life.

Does the place feel safe?  Does its culture reflect a person’s lifestyle in terms of access to the arts, religious institutions, sports facilities, shopping and eating establishments, and street-life?  Is it aesthetically pleasing in terms of building design, green and recreational spaces, noise and pollution levels?

To the extent that the prosperity of our cities depends on people’s willingness to live and invest here, we need to pay as much attention to quality of life as to the other factors.  This is particularly true in cities like Boston where energy and housing costs will inevitably stay relatively high and the huge influx of out-of-state students will be always tempted to return home (or head to NYC!) after graduation — currently only about 30% of them are sufficiently impressed by what Bean town offers to stay, according to a recent Federal Reserve study.

Quality of life, like jobs and housing and schools, emerges from a complex combination of strategies – including transportation:  not just ease of mobility, but also in the way that transportation shapes all of the other criteria.   And it is in the pulling together of all the threads, mobilizing the full range of needed strategies, that political leadership makes its mark.  But politicians can’t do it without skillful, flexible, and collaborative administrative leaders behind them.  And agency leaders can’t bring their own staffs into motion around such a barrier-breaking agenda without public support.

For the past 50 years, transportation investment has been overwhelmingly used to expand our car-carrying capacity.  As a result, our existing transportation system is one-sidedly car-centric.  The goal was to move as many mostly single occupancy cars as quickly as possible.  But as we all know, urban roads are perpetually congested – and simply building more roads is an only temporary solution since the easier it is to drive the more people use their cars, until congestion returns.  Over dependence on cars not only fouls our roads, it also fouls our air, water, and neighborhood connections:  researcher Donald Appleyard found that people who lived on streets with heavy traffic had about a third as many local friends as those who lived in less intimidating environments.

Complete Streets and Traffic Calming are two strategies to regain control of the transportation system and improve the surrounding quality of life.  Streets become “Complete” when they have facilities that serve all modes of movement (such as walking, cycling, wheelchair, transit, and cars) and all users (including young, old, and disabled).  Although many traffic engineers’ response to a demand for “completeness” is to provide the minimum possible space for non-motorized users, others take the opportunity to redress some of our past over-building of car-serving facilities.  Bicycle infrastructure, for example, can include bike lanes, cycle tracks (physically separated on-road areas reserved for bikes), and “shared spaces” in which all users move slowly regardless of the method they use.

(At its best, Complete Streets also fulfills its commitment to all users by, for example, incorporating audible pedestrian signals for the visually impaired and setting up cycle tracks wide enough to provide space for people using electric wheelchairs.)

Traffic Calming slows traffic and increases the visibility of non-motorized users through a variety of methods including imposing a “road diet” by reducing the number or width (physically or visually) of car lanes, tightening corners, adding speed bumps or stop signs, etc.  Including facilities for pedestrians, wheelchair users, bicyclists, and bus riders – creating a more Complete Street — can also contribute to traffic calming if done properly.

Complete Streets and Traffic Calming make it safer and more convenient to go places without using a car.  “Transportation Demand Management” reduces the incentives that encourage people to use their car.  Instead of reserving huge amounts of public land for exclusive use as free or deeply-subsidized parking spaces, we can charge market rates for on-street spots in commercial areas, and reduce the overall number of parking spaces, freeing space for other uses.  Instead of transferring property and local tax revenues to cover road costs, we can raise tolls and impose congestion fees, offset by income tax credits for low-income families who have to drive.

Progressive transportation advocates around the world have begun promoting a “Green Transportation Hierarchy” that puts serving pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit as the first priority; followed by commercial vehicles, including trucks; then taxis and high occupancy vehicles; with single occupancy vehicles getting only what space and resources are left over.  The first three have priority because transit and walking, along with bicycling, are the only realistic way other than by car for people to cover the distances needed to deal with large cities.  Trucks come next because they serve vital commercial functions, and therefore also get preference over personal automobiles for scarce curbside parking.

Making it easier to walk, bike, or take a bus is not social engineering or “nanny state” meddling forcing people to move about in undesired ways.  In fact, our current transportation system gives most people little choice but to over-use their cars.  Time after time, the creation of inviting sidewalks and bike facilities that welcome the “traffic-intolerant” majority of our population have precipitated huge increases in pedestrian and cyclist activity.  If you build it, they do come – especially if the paths connect to desirable shops, services, and attractive destinations.  The reality is that rebalancing our transportation system allows the latent demand for alternative modes to finally express itself.

Despite the skeptics, research shows that Traffic Calming and similar measures improve road safety.  A new study by the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Safety Information System, “Evaluation of Lane Reduction ‘Road Diet’ Measures on Crashes”  found that road diets can significantly reduce crashes.  In New York City nearly three and a half miles of car lanes and dozens of parking spots have been removed from iconic Broadway and replaced by cycle tracks and pedestrian picnic areas, boosting sales in nearby businesses.  After three years the amount of traffic and the number of accidents has decreased while nearby streets have not been overrun by detouring drivers.  “It’s like a green ribbon; traffic is better, injuries are way down,” says Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn.

Both Complete Streets and Traffic Calming have a spill-over effect on land use, especially as one moves from the inner city to the “village centers” of most suburbs.  But they need to be complemented with strategies that more directly discuss the nature of the surrounding lived environment.  As analyst Alyssa Katz points out: “It took seven decades and trillions in federal investment to [pull people out of cities and] create sprawl…The first interstate highways rolled out in the 1950s with the present-day equivalent of $300 billion in federal funds.  The suburban home industry was fueled by subsidies that today amount each year to almost twice HUD’s entire budget.”

To create more livable communities, we need to combine multiple strategies addressing multiple aspects of the needed transformation.  Local street design needs to be integrated into regional transportation planning so that our past over-reliance on car-serving highway and road construction is rebalanced by intensive expansion of train, trolley, and bus transit services.  This sets the stage for Transit Oriented Design (TOD) that steers new development towards mass transit corridors, thereby reducing car dependent sprawl and preserving green space.

Connecting growth to transit access is a good complement to the “New Urbanist” vision of more compact communities with a greater mix of uses (residential, commercial, and “clean production”) within walking distance.  While New Urbanists are (ironically) most known for their suburban developments, their ideas are equally relevant for urban neighborhoods, which are even better positioned to enjoy the multiplier benefits of density.  As economist Edward Glaeser points out, “Cities work economic magic and entertain their citizens by connecting smart people, helping them to learn from one another and to innovate.  Density doesn’t just make cities productive, it also makes them fun.”  Density also increases the opportunities for small scale entrepreneurs to find a market.

Recreating urban (and suburban) villages also fits with the push from Smart Growth and Green Building advocates for more sustainable building materials and energy systems.  Lacking a recognized slogan and organization, but just as important, are the architects and building designers who are looking for interior layouts that promote workplace interaction and the community planners who are exploring ways to increase cooperative interaction among neighbors as an part of daily routines through shared play spaces, laundry facilities, recreational areas, trash collection points, and other shared resources.

(Growth has always been the American mantra and the least-painful solution to many social/political problems.  But the speculative front edge of our financial system has contributed to the overseas transfer of much of our manufacturing base and shattered the security of the middle layers of our social structure.  Many US cities now need to manage shrinkage rather than growth. Detroit and Cleveland are the poster kids, but eight of the 10 largest US cities have lost at least 20 percent of their population since 1950.  The ideas in this post about shaping the urban environment are as relevant to managing shrinkage as well as growth.)

When I was young, the neighborhood basketball court wasn’t in a playground or driveway.  It was in the street.  Cars used the street (and we’d move over, slowly, when they came), but so did kids on bicycles, mothers pushing baby carriages (yes, it was mostly mothers back then), and neighbors stopping to talk.  This wasn’t a rural backwater with no traffic, it was a city.  But when we stepped outside our homes, we simply were outside – the space was relatively undifferentiated: you could turn in any direction and start playing, working, talking, or moving.

That neighborhood feeling is hard to maintain when the number, size, and speed of passing cars gets too high.   The problem is that transportation is joined like a Siamese twin with land use – and together they shape our lived environment and our quality of life.  As a result, revitalizing our neighborhoods and our cities will require a sophisticated and coordinated set of policies across a wide variety of interest areas.  But the vision describing the goal is relatively simple.  And it has the huge advantage of appealing for recapture of past values while promoting efforts to shape the future.  It even has a populist angle:  as the Obama administration has pointed out, a household with access to public transit spends only 9 percent of its income on transportation compared with 25% for the car dependent.

While transportation isn’t the full solution, it is one of the leverage points.  And the upcoming debate on the federal Transportation Finance Bill will be one of the key forums for debate.  The trick, as National Complete Streets Coalition Executive Director Barbara McCann points out in a recent article “is to learn how to build the political consensus that roads serve purposes other than automobile travel.”


*An article on the Federal Reserve’s study of post-graduation movement of Massachusetts students is at

*The analysis of traffic and friendships comes from Livable Streets, by Donald Appleyard, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1981.

*The importance of desirable, nearby destinations is evaluated in “Travel and the Built Environment” by Reid Ewing & Robert Cervero, Journal of the American Planning Association, June 2010 and also in “Bikability and the Twenty-Minute Neighborhood, by Nathan McNeil, written for the Transportation Research Board:

*The Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Safety Information System study on road diet and crashes is at

*Changes on NYC’s great white way is discussed in “Broadway Is Busy, With Pedestrians, if Not Car Traffic” by Michael Grynbaum, New York Times, 9/5/10

*The amount of historic subsidy spent on highways and suburbs comes from “The Reverse Commute:  by Alyssa Katz, The American Prospect, July/Aug. 2010, p.17

*For more on Transit Oriented Development: more on the Congress for the New Urbanism: For more on Smart Growth:

*The quote on urban dynamics is from “Free the food truck,” Op.Ed. by Edward Glaeser, Boston Globe, p.A17, 9/9/10

*Barbara McCann’s piece “Complete Street Lessons from Copenhagen” appeared on 7/1/10 in her blog at


If you found this interesting, you might also be interested in the following previous posts:


What Transportation And Public Health Can Learn From Each Other About Changing Public Behaviors” 

What is Healthy Transportation 

Broken Windows and Broken Streets – Livable Streets as a Strategy to Reduce Crime and Support Local Business 

ReDefining Transportation: from Moving Vehicles to Place-Making” 

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